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It will never be easy to be a Baha’i. I’ve tried, and believe me, being a Baha’i is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
The personal standards are demanding. The Baha’i social principles, such as achieving the unity of humanity, are radical by contemporary standards and will require a tremendous amount of concentrated effort over an extended period of time before anything close to a payoff occurs.
If that weren’t challenging enough, as of now, the vast majority of the people on this planet simply do not believe or do not care that Baha’u’llah is a messenger of God, just as Christ and Krishna and Muhammad were, and so seem disinclined to give the Baha’i Faith and its teachings much credence.
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Overcoming all these individual and social obstacles to make the Baha’i Faith an accepted and powerful force in the world involves a lot of initial and arduous work without necessarily seeing much in the way of immediate and tangible results – which brings up the perennial human issues of struggle and suffering.
Most of us don’t enjoy struggling, because it’s hard and there is almost never an instantaneous reward.
Plus, there’s another problem with struggling: It’s not something that we humans, particularly many of us living in the West, are all that good at enduring. That’s partly because Western society is based on the flawed principal of materialism: the more stuff you have, and the more diversions you can afford, the happier you are.
Life can be hard and filled with pain, and no one much likes that fact. As a result, many of the world’s people have become hedonists, which means they want to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort. This is all perfectly understandable. Why would anyone voluntarily suffer?
Although few volunteer for life’s tests and difficulties, the value of struggle is that strenuous effort stretches you and makes you more resilient. Or, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche characterized it: “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger.”
When you have to struggle for something, that process takes you out of your comfort zone. Effort is difficult and makes you do things that challenge you; it forces you to act in ways that are new and uncertain. Because of that, you know you will fail, and have to try again.
Failure is a key component here, and a signal that you need to keep going instead of giving up. If you can find the will to stay with the work, your chances of success improve. (Or, as Michael Jordan, the NBA all-time great basketball player put it: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”)
Abdu’l-Baha took an even tougher view on the value of failure and affliction, telling an audience in Paris in October, 1912, “Men who suffer not, attain no perfection.” He also said:
The more a man is chastened, the greater is the harvest of spiritual values shown forth by him. A soldier is no good general until he has been in the front of the fiercest battle and has received the deepest wounds.
That’s not exactly the cheeriest of examples, but it makes the point. Suffering is important because it forces us to look outside ourselves and respond to the situation with perseverance and flexibility in order to deal with it. Suffering can help us be humble, give us a window into the difficulties of life others face, and allow us to develop a sense of compassion and empathy for the plight of all people.
“Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him,” Abdu’l-Baha told his French audience on that late October evening in Paris. “Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting.”
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That may sound unsparing, but it is also accurate, and is supported by the lifelong practice of a person who knew all about overcoming adversity – the blind and deaf activist and author Helen Keller. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet,” she wrote. “Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
So if you’re undergoing tests, trials, and struggle at this point in your life – and who isn’t? – try to be thankful. Your suffering has meaning, and your soul will grow as a result. This adversity, as Baha’u’llah wrote in his book Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, has a powerful purpose: “Verily God hath made adversity as a morning dew upon His green pasture, and a wick for His lamp which lighteth earth and heaven.”
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